On Wednesday, President Donald Trump called a press conference at the White House to attack the Russia investigation. Twice, he denounced it as a “witch hunt.” “The whole thing with Russia was a hoax, as it relates to the Trump administration and myself,” Trump told reporters. “It’s a hoax. The greatest hoax in history.”
Trump has been peddling this smear for two years. But now he has an ally in his smear campaign: Attorney General William Barr. And Barr’s complicity exposes the attorney general’s dishonesty. He’s not working for the Justice Department. He’s lying to protect Trump.
Trump fired Barr’s predecessor, Jeff Sessions, for failing to protect the president from the investigation. Barr was hired to replace Sessions, in large part because Barr had written a memo that would exempt much of Trump’s conduct from prosecution. In March, when special counsel Robert Mueller turned in his report on the investigation, Barr misrepresented it. Mueller outlined a case for prosecution based on Trump’s multiple attempts to abort, disrupt, or curtail the investigation. Barr, however, decreed that none of these acts would be prosecuted. To this day, Barr has issued no report explaining his reasons.
On Friday, in a Fox News interview with Bill Hemmer, Barr defended Trump’s smear campaign.
Hemmer: The president calls this a witch hunt. He calls it a hoax. Do you agree with that? …
Barr: If you were the president, I think you would view it as a witch hunt and a hoax. Because at the time, he was saying he was innocent and that he was being falsely accused. And if you’re falsely accused, you would think [it] was a witch hunt. … He has been hammered for allegedly conspiring with the Russians. And we now know that was simply false.
Hemmer: Are you comfortable using those words? Witch hunt, hoax?
Barr: I use what words I use. And it was an investigation. But I think if I had been falsely accused, I’d be comfortable saying it was a witch hunt.
That’s a remarkable betrayal by the attorney general of his own department. It’s also a lie. Barr is claiming that when Trump made these charges, the president had a basis in fact or in personal knowledge. That’s provably false.
Let’s go back to July 8, 2017. On that day, according to Mueller’s report, Trump’s communications director, Hope Hicks, showed the president a draft statement that his son, Donald Trump Jr., planned to issue about the now-infamous June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower. The draft statement said that Trump Jr. had accepted the meeting “with an individual who I was told might have information helpful to the campaign.” Trump has repeatedly claimed that this moment in July 2017 was the first time he heard of the meeting and the emails leading up to it, which offered “documents and information that would incriminate Hillary” as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
What did the president do with this surprising information? First, he altered his son’s statement to omit the part about being offered information helpful to the campaign. Second, he sent a back-channel message to Sessions to shut down the investigation. Third, he publicly dismissed the investigation as meritless. “This Russia story is a hoax made up by the Democrats,” Trump told Reuters on July 12, 2017. “There’s no coordination, this was a hoax, this was made up by the Democrats.” That night, speaking to reporters on Air Force One, Trump ridiculed the Russia story five times as a “witch hunt.”
When Trump made these comments disparaging the investigation as a fraudulent and baseless fishing expedition, he wasn’t just wrong. He was lying. He had just learned (in case he hadn’t known it already) that there was a real basis to investigate contacts between Russia and his campaign. These were contacts the president claimed not to have known about, and for whose innocence he couldn’t directly vouch.
Trump did the same thing a year later. On July 9, 2018, he was briefed on a forthcoming indictment from Mueller. The indictment detailed how 12 Russian intelligence officers had orchestrated the hacking and dissemination of Democratic Party emails to influence the election. The indictment said the perpetrators had “communicated with U.S. persons about the release of stolen documents,” including “a person who was in regular contact with senior members of the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump.” Officials confirmed that this intermediary was Trump adviser Roger Stone.
Again, Trump was presented with ostensibly new information about contacts involving Russia and his campaign. And again, he dismissed the investigation. At a press conference on July 13, Trump lambasted the inquiry three times as a “witch hunt.” He did the same on Fox News. At a press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 16, Trump brushed aside a question about the 12 indicted Russians, claiming that “the whole concept” of Russian interference had been concocted as part of a “witch hunt” to rationalize Hillary Clinton’s defeat.
In January, Mueller indicted Stone. The indictment charged Stone with false statements, witness tampering, and obstruction of justice. It revealed that in the summer of 2016, after WikiLeaks released Democratic emails that had been hacked by Russia, “a senior Trump Campaign official was directed to contact Stone about any additional releases and what other damaging information [WikiLeaks] had regarding the Clinton Campaign.” Thereafter, Stone passed specific requests to WikiLeaks for documents “damaging to the Clinton campaign.” In return, “On multiple occasions, Stone told senior Trump Campaign officials about materials possessed by [WikiLeaks] and the timing of future releases.”
Hours after Stone’s arrest, Trump denounced the investigation again. “Greatest Witch Hunt in the History of our Country!” he tweeted. The next day, the president wrote, “WITCH HUNT!” Two weeks later, Trump said of the investigation, “It is all a GIANT AND ILLEGAL HOAX.”
These three episodes and others, all of them documented in Mueller’s report or Trump’s public statements, show that when the president smeared the investigation as a hoax and a witch hunt, he was lying. In each case, Trump knew that the investigation had just unearthed real connections between his campaign and Russia—connections of which the president claimed to have been ignorant.
So when Barr says that if he were in Trump’s shoes, “I’d be comfortable saying it was a witch hunt,” there are only two ways to interpret that remark. One is that Barr is endorsing slander. The other is that Barr is claiming Trump was sincere. But anyone who knows the facts of the investigation well, as Barr purports to know them, would know that any such claim about Trump’s sincerity is false. All the evidence in Mueller’s report and in the public record shows that Trump knew his smears weren’t true.
To excuse Trump’s smears, you’d have to reinterpret them. You’d have to argue that Trump didn’t really mean to dismiss the whole investigation as a “hoax” or a “witch hunt,” even though the record shows he explicitly did. You could peddle that spin if you were Trump’s lawyer. But not if your allegiance was to the truth or to the Department of Justice.
While bending over backward to justify Trump’s lies, Barr offers no such cover to the Justice Department employees who investigated the president. In his Fox News interview, Barr insinuated that these employees did “strange” and suspicious things. “A lot of the answers have been inadequate,” said Barr, hinting at misconduct but declining to reveal his evidence. “Some of the explanations I’ve gotten don’t hang together. … We should be worried about whether government officials abused their power.” Hemmer asked, “Do you smell a rat?” And Barr replied: “The answers I’m getting are not sufficient.”
Barr plays his part well. He projects calm, looks authoritative in a suit, and is skilled at using legal terms to justify his conclusions. But there’s no way to reconcile his behavior or his statements with prosecutorial integrity. He’s an accomplice to Trump’s smear campaign. Barr’s job was to end the investigation, block Trump’s prosecution, and help Trump attack the investigators. And that’s exactly what he’s doing.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary and criticism you won’t find anywhere else. Join Slate Plus.Join Slate Plus